Liturgy: Female Altar Servers
ROME, FEB. 3, 2004 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: What is the Church's position on the use of female altar servers? May all of the servers be female, or must at least one be male? Do you feel that the use of female altar servers detracts from the building of vocations among young males? -- M.C.S.N., Catonsville, Maryland
A: Female altar servers are permitted in all but two U.S. dioceses. They are also common in most English-speaking countries, and in Western Europe. The situation is patchier in the rest of the world, going from total absence to the occasional diocese that allows them.
From the point of view of liturgical law, an official interpretation of Canon 230, Paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon law on the possibility of delegating certain liturgical offices led to a 1994 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments clarifying that girls may serve at the altar. But bishops are not bound to permit them to do so, nor could the episcopal conference limit the bishop's faculty to decide for himself.
A further clarifying letter published in 2001 said priests are not compelled to have girls serve at the altar, even when their bishops grant permission.
The 1994 letter states: "It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue."
The letter also recommends to bishops to consider "among other things the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such permission and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass."
Therefore the Holy See's recommendation is to retain as far as possible the custom of having only boys as servers. But it leaves to the bishop the choice of permitting women and girls for a good reason and to the pastor of each parish the decision as to whether to act on the bishop's permission.
It is important not to focus this debate using political categories such as rights, equality, discrimination, etc., which only serves to fog the issue. We are dealing with the privilege of serving in an act of worship to which nobody has any inherent rights.
The question should be framed as to what is best for the good of souls in each diocese and parish. It is thus an eminently pastoral and not an administrative decision, and this is why it should be determined at the local level.
Among the pastoral factors to be weighed is the obvious yet often forgotten fact that boys and girls are different and require different motivational and formative methods.
This difference means that both boys and girls usually go through a stage when they tend to avoid common activities.
Preteen boys in particular are very attracted to activities that cater especially for them, and they tend to reject sharing activities with girls.
They also tend to have a greater need for such structured activities than girls who are usually more mature and responsible at this stage of life.
As a result, some parishes have found that the introduction of girl servers has led to a sharp drop-off of boys offering to serve. Once the boys have left and enter the years of puberty, it is difficult to bring them back.
Some pastors say this phenomenon is less marked where serving at Mass forms part of a wider Catholic structure, such as a school, or when siblings serve together.
It is also true that groups of boy servers have fostered vocations to the priesthood. But to be fair, this usually happens within a broader culture of openness to a vocation in which other elements come into play, such as the example and spiritual guidance given by good priests, and family support.
If, for example, a long-established program of boy servers has proved successful in promoting vocations or has been useful in helping boys avoid bad company and maintain the state of grace, then the good of souls obliges pastors to weigh heavily the spiritual risks involved in abandoning it.
When girls do serve, it is probably best to aim for a mixture of boys and girls -- if only to avoid giving the impression to the congregation that Catholicism is above all a female activity. On some occasions, however, it might be best to separate boys and girls into different groups.
It is very difficult to lay down precise rules in a matter like this since the situation may vary widely between parishes. And it is not unknown to have sharp differences among the faithful who assist at different Masses at the same parish.
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